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Commentators: Marja Vanderloo & Henk Boot
Photon cannons, the latest WMDs
What have WMDs to do with audio you might ask? As we investigated that very question, quite a lot it appeared. First, this weapon of mass destruction is nothing to be afraid of though it really does exist. Here it is used to deform molecules in optical music carriers - ways of molecular derangement. But let's start at the beginning. Since the conception of the CD as optical music carrier, many have found that its sound quality is very much susceptible to external influences. From green pens to edge beveling to all kinds of creams, oils and stickers, in almost all cases applying such tweaks changes the sound of the reproduced music.
The more technically inclined listeners and far more skeptics ridiculed any such results with the canon "bits are bits". And they are right. When you take two CDs -- be they the same pressed versions, a pressed and a copy or two copies of the same original -- and you compare them bit for bit, the results are... no difference. Truly, bits are bits.
That is not so strange. This equality of two optical media carrying the same data should be 100% identical. While the manner of error correction is different for audio and data CDs, the basic workings are the same. Imagine that a disc containing a computer program missed a bit here and there or added one at random. Something like 0001 + 0001 would then suddenly become 0011. Go figure. In audio CDs, only one third of all the bits and bytes represent actual musical content. The rest is redundant information just there to be used whenever one or even a couple out of a thousand bits cannot be read by the laser mechanism. One of the cleverest error correction mechanisms based on the Cross-Interleave Reed-Solomon Code or CIRC is able to correct the missing data and does this in every CD player extant. And imagine what an effort it represents. The data on an audio CD passes by the laser at a constant rate of 4.3218 million bits per second. In the CD specifications, there is room for one faulty bit in every 100.000 to 1.000.000 bits. The CIRC error correction drives down these figures to one faulty bit in 10.000.000.000 to 100.000.000.000 bits. Error correction of these vast bit amounts is handled in two stages. Easily correctable errors are handled in stage one. Such errors are called C1 errors and are subdivided into E11, E21 and E31 errors. If the C1 stage is not able to correct an error, then stage two is called in to handle C2 errors. In the C2 stage, errors are E122, E22 and E32. If even this stage is unable to solve the problem, then there is finally a real error at hand, E32, and the missing bit(s) must be concealed with a guessed bit.
Of all the possible errors, only the concealed errors can possibly be audible. You hear a short pop or tick or even a whole range of this as though the disc were 'hanging'. Some time ago we performed a test with various makes of CD-R discs. Once recorded with the same music, we delivered the discs to Mafico near us who have a Clover CDX CD testing system. The CDs under test ranged from 10 cents apiece to a whopping $5. None of the tested CDs displayed uncorrectable E32 errors. Based on these digital measurements, the most expensive blank, MoFi Ultradisc, came out ahead followed by the black Hispace Carbon.
But in the analog realm, things were quite different. The cheapest CD-R also sounded the cheapest - thin and sharp. Still somewhat to our surprise, it wasn't the most expensive blank that sounded best but another one using gold for the reflective layer. Since that time, the MAM-E brand has been our choice for audio copies. For computer data, the cheapest CD-Rs work fine. Errors are not audible as long as they do not include uncorrectable E32 errors. Any other error is cleverly corrected from the redundant data and this correction happens completely unnoticed.
The reason for our ongoing tests was to find out why copying of pressed CD to CD-R in 99.9% of all cases sounded from just better to very much better. It worked out that by way of measurements, this could not be explained. Bits were indeed bits. In a resultant article, more details were revealed on the how and why of CD-R copies.
Since that time, we were quite content with copying musically truly outstanding commercial CDs to CD-R and have enjoyed this fabulous music even more than before. Only XRCDs are not worthwhile copying as are some rare others. These CDs are pressed with much more care than the quick and literally dirty bulk runs. In general, the artists, technicians and producers invested a lot of their energy and emotion into their masters and after their precious masters are sent off to the pressing plants, the results are far too often far too shameful. Long live EAC in these barren times.
That is, until the Nespa #1 fell into our laps. See our review for more on our initial encounter. We of course tried out other tweaks that came along but either they did not have any results such as the Intelligent Chip or they did not surpass the EAC method. With the Nespa, things changed drastically. This simple black box added a few parameters to our 'home-based remastering' techniques. A pressed CD Nespa'd is far more enjoyable to listen to. An EAC copy of a Nespa'd commercial CD is no different from the copy of that same CD made before it was Nespa'd. Bits are bits here. An EAC copy of a CD is much enhanced by Nespa'ing yet Nespa'ing a blank disc before recording music to it with EAC is of little use. It's far better to treat the CD-R after recording to it.
The Nespa thus works in the analog realm of the CD(R). According to the information supplied by manufacturer Nanotec, the strong light flashes make for a better bond between the reflective layer and the top of the polycarbonate carrier with its pits and lands. Alleged residues between these two layers are flashed away. As polycarbonate is permeable and even hygroscopic -- submerge a disc in water and feel the weight after some time and take care with exposing beveled discs to moisture -- this theory isn't too implausible. More importantly, the Nespa works and everyone who has heard the effect says, "me too". Quite a few people buy a Nespa #1 or the new Pro as a group and share the costs. Not a bad idea at all. There are even opportunities at shows to have your CD Nespa'd for a small fee.
In one of our Google sessions, we stumbled onto Geoff Kait's machinadynamica.com site. Some years ago, Geoff had sent us two Intelligent Chips and based on the how-to instructions at the time, neither we nor a fellow writer could make these things work. So our IC was put away and frankly, we had forgotten about it. But now our attention was drawn by Geoff's statement that he had the Definitive Explanation for how his IC works.
To make Geoff's story short, the Intelligent Chip works by having one to three quantum dots depending on the type of IC. The dots are encapsulated by the visible metal discs on the green wafer when you open the orange container. When coherent light from a laser hits the quantum dot, the dot will react by emitting photons. These photons hit the CD in the player and there they do their work. Besides this explanation, Geoff now also advised on taking the green wafer out of the container and putting it in the CD player while activating the laser for two seconds. This makes far more sense than the 'old' way of putting the chip in its container atop the CD player and relying on leaking light to do the trick. As it turned out, putting the naked dots in really close proximity to a spinning CD was a crucial piece to the IC puzzle.
As the proof is always in the pudding, we fished the IC from its now dusty hiding place and opened the container. A little dot -- pun intended -- of tack secured the green wafer in one of the finger dents of our CEC disc spinner. We prepared three EAC MAM-E CDs of our favorite CD of the month, Thierry 'Titi' Robin's Anita. In went a copy and the player was allowed to tick away for 2 seconds. That should have been enough for the nanotechnology to do its magic.
One other CD-R got a full 120-second treatment with the Nespa #1. By now, you hopefully have made the connection. Nespa's modus operandi is to bombard a disc with intense light from a Xeon flashbulb at close proximity to the speeding disc. The Intelligent Chip bombards the disc with photons emitted from the artificial molecules known as nano dots. Hence both can be categorized as photon cannons.
After some work, we had prepped 4 CDs containing the same musical information. For our listening tests, we used track three, "Ton Doux Visage". First up was the original French pressing, a great song though somewhat flat-sounding. Next was the EAC copy on MAM-E. The soundstage on this version became more three-dimensional in comparison to the pressed original. Bass was far more extended and the mids carried more detail while the highs were less tinny. Enter the Nespa'd version, again with a very noticeable difference. Especially the midrange was now far more detailed. It was as though all the instruments occupied their own space while still being unified by the ensemble playing. The richer mids also depicted a spatially more convincing aural picture. There was more layered depth to the sound. Bass was tighter and better defined.
And then the last disc. What was the result of a 2-second nano-dot photon bombardment? Well, hold on to your chair. The thing worked! The same differences we noticed between the non-Nespa'd and Nespa'd disc were now audible with the IC'd disc. After various swaps of the discs, it was easy to tell the plain EAC version from a further treated CD-R but it was flat out impossible to tell the difference between the Nespa'd and IC'd version.
We had a number of visiting and experienced listeners in the house. They all could clearly hear the improvements in musical quality after photon exposure. But none could pick either the Nespa or IC by ear. So we have an Intelligent Chip, the GSIC-30 for $40 and a Nespa Pro for $825. Breaking things down, an IC'd disc costs $1.33 since you can only treat 30 discs before the dots expire and run out of photons. With the Nespa Pro, you can treat 2000 discs before the Xeon bulb needs replacement. Stretching the expenditure over 2000 discs, one disc will set you back $0.40. Go figure.
With our four discs, we subsequently performed some measurements with Plextools Pro yet none of the outcomes were as revealing as the listening tests. Between the original and the EAC versions, there was a slight change in jitter measurements but nothing significant. The same went for the other discs. Bigger numerical differences in the same digital realm arose in the numbers for C1 and C2 errors, between original and copies. But those are just indicators of the working of CIRC and, again, not audible. For the real 'Why', we must look elsewhere.
Our search ended with Japan's Hitachi Corp. They produce almost anything imaginable, including CD production systems. Here we found a clue that linked Nanotec's theory on the workings of their Nespa and Kait's effects of the IC. Hitachi states that it is common knowledge that surfaces of certain plastics are modified by ultra-violet light irradiation. UV has a short wavelength and thus high energy. UV is able to cut the stable bonds of the molecules at the surface of the plastic. While doing this, the surface will be flattened and smoothed. When the plastic to be treated happens to be a polycarbonate -- a plastic which contains oxygen -- the effect of UV treatment is even stronger.